KZN cave unlocking the secrets of human development

2019-01-09 15:30

The KwaZulu-Natal Museum is assisting a top Dutch researcher who is trying to understand the evolution of human behaviour through artefacts dug up near Mariannhill.

Dr Gerrit Dusseldorp, a researcher at Leiden University, last year excavated a section of earth at the uMhlatuzana rock shelter, just off the N3 near the Mariann-hill Toll Plaza.

He is being supported by the KZN Museum’s department of human sciences, where he is able to run analyses of artefacts dug up. The museum is also being used to store several pieces retrieved during excavations.

The museum has had a keen interest in the uMhlatuzana rock shelter, and has either supported or directly been involved in research there for more than 30 years.

Gavin Whitelaw, the chief curator of human sciences, explained that Dusseldorp’s plan is to analyse the artefacts found, to be able to see how far back they date. In doing so, he can hopefully track the transition between the Middle Stone Age and the Late Stone Age to see when behaviour became more sophisticated, and what that could mean in the broader picture.

Artefacts recovered from the uMhlatuzana rock shelter. On the right is a stone axe, accompanied by more advanced smaller tools. (Ian Carbutt)

“The Middle Stone Age is between 350 000 and 25 000 years ago, and the Late Stone Age is about 25 000 years ago to colonial times,” Whitelaw told The Witness.

“We are trying to look at that transition between middle and late, trying to understand what was happening and why it was happening, trying to get those details.”

Whitelaw said artefacts and their use were indicators of the social set-up of the time, which would show just how advanced human beings living at that place were at the time.

“Think of a bow and arrow ... Using it would require the type of thinking modern humans have.

“In uMhlatazana we think this modern behaviour started as long as 70 000 years ago because we’ve previously found three centimetre-long serrated stone points that may have been used for fishing. This kind of artefact shows that human beings began crafting advanced tools.”

Dutch researcher Dr Gerrit Dusseldorp (right) speaks to visitors during an SA Archaeological Society excursion to the uMhlatuzana rock shelter. (Donald Davies)

Whitelaw said Dusseldorp, who will return to the museum later this year to continue his research, is currently in the process of analysing and making sense of what was excavated.

“With this information we can understand why we went from large tools to small tools. What does it say about us socially or about the time?” he added.

Ghilraen Laue, another member of the museum’s human sciences department, said: “If someone brought us a tool on its own, there’s nothing we can really say about it. But with context, like in this case, we can provide a proper date and understand its use and the era.”


Read more on:    pietermaritzburg  |  kzn museum
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